Columns by Eric J. Adams
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You've undoubtedly dealt with this client-relations dilemma before: you get a call with instructions or feedback from Jack. Fifteen minutes later Jenny from the very same office calls with instructions or feedback of her own. But wait, not fifteen minutes goes by before Rick chimes in with his opinion. And you? You're stuck trying to reconcile the good (or bad) advice from three different but very important people and left to ponder the wider political ramifications of it all.
This dilemma can get very tricky. Recently, for example, I was working on a marketing campaign that involved not only my client (with whom I had signed a contract) but also my client's alliance partner (who was the real money behind the project). Now I usually have to reconcile the goals, desires, and concerns of several people -- it's part of the life of an IP. But in this case, the instructions from these two entities were so completely contrary there was simply no way of fudging it all to make everyone happy. My client wanted the brochure to be an informative piece chock-full of detail, detail, detail. This was a big-ticket purchase, the client argued, and consumers like details when spending lots of money. The alliance partner believed emotion, emotion, emotion would sell this particular product.
Did I really have to choose between the sizzle and the steak?
Had I been working with an unlimited budget and word count, I could have accommodated both approaches. But funds were stretched to the max and I was limited to a single marketing piece of under three hundred words (about what you've read so far). Basically it was details vs. emotion and I was smack dab in the middle of a tactical tug of war.
In cases like these, there are several options available to you, none of which are ideal, and all of which carry the potential for serious fallout. But, hey, if it were easy, anyone could do it.
1. Ignore somebody. You agree with Jack (or Jack is the Big Enchilada), so you follow up on Jack's suggestions and blow off Jenny and Rick. This tactic is shortsighted for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Jenny and Rick won't be happy with you. First, they'll voice their displeasure, and even if they are not "important," their opinion may very well be highly regarded within the company (and who knows, maybe Jenny or Rick will become the Big Enchilada tomorrow). Second, it's plain unprofessional to ignore anyone and their opinion. Finally, you're not paid to ignore but to listen and help create what the client wants.
2. Accommodate everyone. If it's possible, you can -- and should -- try to hear what everyone has to say and incorporate their feedback. But as the saying goes, a camel is a horse designed by a committee. If you accommodate every single stray opinion, the project will turn into a muddled mess. And when it's all said and done and the ribbon's cut on the project, no one will blame Jack or Jenny if the end result is mediocre. They'll blame you.
3. Ask for clarification. Why not? Decide who is the most important person you're dealing with, lay out all the opinions you've received, and ask for direction. It's not a bad option but it's not without problems, either. For one, you may receive a direction you don't agree with and then you're really stuck. Plus, you can lose a tremendous amount of power if a client thinks you're a directive-driven hack. If you want to be paid the big bucks, you don't want to act like a low-level employee.
4. Act as facilitator. Can you say therapist? Gather up all the parties either via conference call or in person, and use all your child psychology skills to create a consensus among the parties that is both beneficial for the project and acceptable to all. It's a great solution if you're really good at working a group. Being an IP is tricky enough; being a facilitator is even trickier. If the process isn't handled correctly, you'll be stuck with an untenable solution or a great solution along with a fair share of resentment on the part of those whose suggestions were jettisoned.
5. Act as a partner. Here may very well be the best option of all. In this case, you're acting as a facilitator, as above, but instead of trying to be a neutral party, you come with your opinion as well. You do your best to persuade others of what you feel is best. If you do a good job, you'll do right by the project and be seen as a valuable consultant and leader (justifying the good money they're undoubtedly paying you).
If your attempts to persuade fail and your ideas are rejected, it's still okay, because you know in your heart you did everything you could to move the project forward in the direction you thought was best. There's nothing left to do but decide which client has the most real power over you, and give that person what he or she wants the best you can. Regardless of the outcome, most everyone will appreciate your valiant attempt to champion your ideas. Should the project be criticized later, it's clear you would have taken things in another direction. It's on record.
This, by the way, was the strategy that I followed in dealing with my client and the alliance partner. The result was a consensus to make the brochure an informative piece while trying to better use the visuals to sell the sizzle.
Now, what do you do if your very best efforts to act as partner and facilitator fail miserably and you are left with no clear direction or you're smelling a particularly odious camel?
Ideally, you'll never be in that position, because your attempts to uncross wires will result in a great project infused with enthusiasm and harmony. But if all attempts fail, well, there's always Option 1 above: ignore the advice you can't agree with. That way at least you can live on the hope that the wisdom of your ways will become apparent when the project finally takes shape.
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